Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi refers to Patrick Brown as "Patrick Bhai" – or brother – and as the leader begins his tour of Canada it will be the backbench MP from Barrie, Ont., who is his unofficial guide.
Their relationship, quietly forged more than five years ago, is now reaping rewards for Mr. Brown – a case of political outreach across the ocean paying potential dividends at the home-front ballot box.
Mr. Brown, making a charge for the leadership of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party, is counting on support from Canada's influential Indian diaspora, and his ties to Mr. Modi are a not-so-hidden asset. According to Mr. Brown, 36, the Indian politician tells anyone he meets that the young Canadian politician is a good friend.
Mr. Brown started out as the dark horse in the race but has used his Indo-Canadian connections to sign up hundreds of new members, helping to push out MPP Christine Elliott, considered the favourite of the establishment, as the frontrunner with just a few weeks before the vote.
"He has made it clear. I am someone that he considers a friend," said Mr. Brown, who is taking two days off the campaign to attend events in Ottawa and Toronto with the Indian leader. He met Mr. Modi at the airport Tuesday and is attending a working lunch with Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Wednesday, as well as the huge event at Toronto's Ricoh Coliseum later in the day. He said he will be "adding to the level of comfort" for the two principals.
Mr. Brown's friendship with Mr. Modi began in 2009, and came about as a result of the federal Conservatives' efforts to reach out to Canada's cultural communities.
First elected in 2006, Mr. Brown was asked by the caucus to start building relationships with the Indo-Canadian community. At the time, there were no Conservative MPs in the Peel Region, where there is a large Indo-Canadian community. (In the 2011 election, the Tories' connection with cultural communities helped them win the majority of seats in the Greater Toronto Area.)
Mr. Brown got himself elected co-chair of the Canada-India Interparliamentary Friendship Group and has been re-elected four times since. So far, he's visited India 15 times, including eight trips to Gujarat, a state in western India. Mr. Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat before he was elected prime minister last year. Of the 1.2 million Indo-Canadians, about 300,000 are Gujaratis, who are mostly in the GTA, Mr. Brown says. They are considered a successful community – titans of industry, who own hotels and run big businesses.
But in 2009, Mr. Modi was under a cloud of controversy and was even denied a visa to travel to the United States after he was blamed for failing to stop riots in which hundreds were killed.
That year, Mr. Brown was encouraged by Indo-Canadian leaders to attend Mr. Modi's Vibrant Gujarat conference, a trade summit held by the government of Gujarat. He went against the wishes of the Foreign Affairs department, which he says was apprehensive about Canada becoming involved.
"In 2009 I got my wrists slapped by DFAIT for going there," he said on Tuesday. But his Indo-Canadian friends told him that Mr. Modi was "going to be a rock star … he was going to do great things and he was someone Canada needed to cultivate a relationship with."
The effort paid off. "The reality was … when much of the world avoided Gujarat, Canada and Japan were the two co-sponsors of his trade conference, which he viewed as the pinnacle as his drive for economic development," Mr. Brown said. "He's never forgotten that. He's told me that. He's never forgotten that during the difficult days that Canada was there for him."
Now Mr. Brown's leadership bid has been informed by his experiences in Gujarat. He recalls Mr. Modi explaining how he turned around his state after devastating earthquakes in 2001. It was by improving roads to bring goods to market, offering cheap electricity and cutting red tape to encourage businesses to invest.
"The reality is that you need conditions for success," Mr. Brown said. "If I have one goal for the province of Ontario, it's to make us competitive. … When they [businesses] look at Ontario … I want them to look at Ontario and say this is the easiest place to invest and not the most difficult."
Meantime, the Gujarati community seems to have embraced Mr. Brown. A website, Gujaratis for Patrick, describes in glowing terms Mr. Brown's ties with India and with Mr. Modi.
"Patrick has been a true friend to the Gujaratis diaspora in Canada," it says. "It is now our turn to help this principled hardworking man become Premier of Ontario."